2005-12-11

Wave of the Future


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A couple weeks ago I watched "The Pirates of Silicon Valley," the story of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the microchip revolution. It's one of those cheezy movies that is saved only by the fact that the subject matter is ineresting on its own. It really is a fascinating story. I grew up in that age - the advent of the personal computer, the rise and fall of Apple. The key: At the outset, Apple was about the hardware. In true Bill Gates fashion, the Microsoft founder saw years down the road, and beat Apple and everyone else in the industry to the punch by monopolizing content / software. My current laptop cost less than a Microsoft Office Professional license.

Now, we're at the doorstep of the next phase. Eventually the massive hard drive will be a relic as more and more content moves online.

Granted, online applications have been around for years, now. But most users, myself among them, have continued to derive basic functionality from software installed on their own computers. I may be able to do taxes, email, book travel, etc. online. But spreadsheets, databases and word processing are my main axes and they are still hard drive-based.

There was a time when this didn't matter. There was a time when you did school computing at school, work computing at work and home computing at home, and there wasn't much opportunity or need to cross the lines. Today, I've got a mix of personal, work and client files on all three of my computers' hard drives and two RAM drives. And still, I can't begin to count how many times I have gone to pull up a file at work, only to realize, "Oh yeah, the current version of that is on my laptop at home." Right now we circumvent this issue with RAM drives, and emailing files to ourselves, etc. Apps like GoToMyPC are designed to help the multiple computer user. In fact, there is a modest sized industry built around the simple fact that more and more people are computing in more and more places.

Watch that industry evaporate as more standard applications are pushed out into the virtual hemisphere. Soon your hardware needs will be modest - just enough power and connectivity to get you on the internet.

Microsoft is beginning a major shift in this area. This year they've started with some functions that are modestly useful, including Live Favorites, shown here. As the name suggests, it is an online resident version of your favorite websites list. It took a little time to get used to getting that Window open right away so that it is handy. Now, LF is one of my favorite apps, for the same reason that many other online versions of what I do on my hard drive will become indispensible - I work a lot on more than one computer, in more than one location.

There was a time when I was uncomfortable with the notion of not having things on my own hard drive. Now, for the reasons mentioned above, I'm well past that. Cost remains the wild card.

Quickbooks is an application that has a virtual edition available. Problem is, the online product is just as cost-prohibitive as Quickbooks out of the box. So, I soldier on with QB2002. That's the nice work-around that won't be available when things go online. Most annual upgrads amount to a few new bells and whistles, some tweaks of the window-dressing, and not much new functionality. Don't want the cost? OK, don't upgrade.

Of course, one look at the full Live Favorites screen shot reveals how Microsoft is preparing to distribute some of the cost. Advertising. The highlighted portion of the Live Favorites screen, roughly 25% of the real estate that my eyes behold when using the app, belongs to me. The right-hand strip is clearly all set for skyscraper ads when this thing comes out of beta. These ads will no doubt be driven by my particular favorites. And the middle half of the screen is available for whatever other features Microsoft chooses to inject. Even if straight on advertising doesn't appear in this area, there will certainly be a lot of cross-promotion and product / service placement deals.

Next up: Office. This is the one I'm waiting for. Early next year Microsoft is scheduled to start beta-testiing Office online. I'm interested to see how this takes shape and have a lot of questions. I've got my name on the beta list - hopefully I'll get a chance to test drive it soon!

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